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Language on the Front Line

Breaking down Covid-19 language barriers

The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted worldwide the need for multilingual, effective, and timely communication. Language has been pushed to the forefront of the global response to the virus and its importance has never been greater. Governments have been obliged to look beyond their own borders for medical supplies, scientific research, clinical trials, and vaccines, whilst ensuring all members of their own population can access lifesaving healthcare information in a way they understand. Overcoming language barriers has been shown to be a matter of life or death.

In the early days of the Covid-19 outbreak it became alarmingly clear that even the most basic hygiene messages weren’t reaching the people that often needed them most. This article for Language on the Move written at the beginning of 2020, explains the obvious benefits of communicating health messages in the minoritized languages of the Tibetan regions of western Sichuan Province in China. Hearing the information in the most commonly spoken languages of the region helped reinforce the seriousness of the message and for the monolingual older generation, opened the door to understanding the threat to their health.

The drive to translate basic Covid-19 health notices into as many languages as possible has gathered momentum throughout the year and is now well documented. Indigenous, endangered, and under-resourced languages are now better served and governments have responded to the need to provide information in the most widely spoken languages, away from a nation’s official tongues.

While much of this open-source information has been translated voluntarily, there has undoubtedly been an increase in demand for multilingual services for the healthcare and medical sectors.

CSA Research data from its survey of Language Service Providers (LSPs) in the 3rd quarter of 2020 shows that 64% of respondents indicated an increase in demand for healthcare translation during this period. For those involved in life sciences, pharmaceuticals, and other medical areas, 59% reported a rise in demand. Certainly, LSPs in these sectors have experienced a boost to their order books, in stark contrast to a decline in work for others and in particular those LSPs specialized in the areas of events, tourism and leisure, and manufacturing.

What effect has this sudden and sizeable rise in demand for Covid-19-related translation had on the language industry itself? Was the sector specializing in healthcare and medical translation and interpretation prepared? How has it adapted?

It became clear as the public health crisis took hold that communicating medical information in the right language for a patient hospitalised with Covid-19 was going to be difficult. Providing sufficient protective equipment to enable medical interpreters to continue their job in person was a challenge for healthcare systems that were already struggling to deal with basic Covid-19 treatment. And this, coupled with the danger of infection meant that medical Interpretation was largely moved to remote. This added to the stress and confusion for patients and the pressures on interpreters.

The pandemic has underlined the value of highly qualified, experienced medical interpreters who are able to respond to the sensitivities of the moment and whose cultural knowledge is first-rate. However, this has increasingly been done at a distance and data from Nimdzi published in April 2020, shows that on-site interpreting in medical settings was decreasing, whilst over-the-phone and video remote interpreting were growing in popularity. LSPs that were able to adapt to these methods of working were able to strengthen their position.

Consolidation was an obvious pathway for LSPs with an established foothold within the remote interpreting sector. The large US company AMN Healthcare, a medical staffing and recruitment specialist, saw its well-timed acquisition of Stratus Video, a remote interpreting platform, reap rewards and Boostlingo, a remote interpreting technology provider, added a video conferencing feature in June 2020 to facilitate ‘expanded connectivity to healthcare providers’.

Adaptation has therefore had to be swift and has often involved increased use of technology. Remote video interpreting still replies on skilled language professionals but the trend towards technology driven interactions with patients has undoubtedly been accelerated by the pandemic.

The race to find a vaccine for Covid-19 has been underway since the genetic sequence of the virus was first published in January 2020 and has thrown the pharmaceutical industry into the global spotlight. Developing a vaccine requires multilingual input at several stages, from initial international collaboration, to clinical trials and documentation. The urgency of developing a vaccine has meant an increased workload for LSPs operating in this sector, with the clinical trial stage alone generating huge amounts of literature and data for translation for and from multinational participants.

Pharmaceutical companies called for regulations regarding multilingual vaccine documentation to be relaxed in the EU as they grappled with reducing the timeframes for the vaccine rollout. This perhaps illustrates the enormity of language requirements related to drug documentation and the obstacle that multilingualism can sometimes present. Ultimately EU regulators decided that one official EU language for vaccine packages and labels, principally English, would suffice. Patient information literature, however, has still to be provided in all official languages of the country where the vaccine is distributed.

Guaranteeing that factual and accurate vaccine information reaches all parts of society in the right languages has become the latest challenge for governments across the world. This can be a complex process but it is one that can’t afford to fail. Although language barriers continue to be broken down during the pandemic, the challenge of getting the right message in the right language is only growing in significance.

Breaking down Covid-19 by t'works language barriers